“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
                       Indiana Jones

Do a little practicing with the handgun and load you plan to carry for snake defense. A snaky looking stick tossed on the ground makes a good target.

Indiana Jones and I have something in common – we don’t like snakes. I can live with the harmless ones, even though they startle me when our paths meet, but the dangerous ones and I don’t get along at all. If you spend time working or recreating outdoors you’re going to run into a venomous snake sooner or later and in my part of the country that’s going to be a rattlesnake. Here are a few examples:

Our old Border Patrol range was infested with rattlesnakes. I once killed 12 in three weeks on that range.

A student I was taking through a rifle course at Gunsite sat down to make a shot within two feet of a coiled Mojave rattlesnake. I got him away and killed the snake but it was a close call.

Recently, a friend’s dog was bitten and killed by a rattlesnake. I know several people whose pets and horses have been bitten; some made it, some didn’t.

A friend was out bird hunting not long after retiring. Spotting a large rattlesnake he decided to capture it and was bitten twice. He died in less than an hour.

A woman was bitten in the big toe when she stabbed a Mojave rattlesnake with a barbeque fork. She died 40 minutes later.

Recently a friend killed a small Western Diamondback rattlesnake he found on his property. Some time later he picked up the severed head by the three inches or so of “neck” and the head turned and bit him in the finger. He barely survived the experience, spent a couple of days in the hospital and will recover eventually, although the effects of the bite will last for months or longer.

I once saw a man attempt to dispose of a Mojave rattlesnake by smacking it on the head with a shovel. The snake didn’t appreciate the gesture and came off the ground by several inches as it spun about and charged. The rather large man dropped the shovel, screamed like a girl and fled.

Another friend has killed “about a dozen” rattlesnakes so far this year in the vicinity of his house. Last year, he said he killed more than twenty. Personally, I would burn the house down and leave.

When I ride horses folks sometimes ask if I wear a pistol so I can shoot snakes. Torching a round off while on horseback, especially if riding with others, seems likely to start a rodeo. With my luck I would be bucked off and find myself on top of the snake. When atop a horse it’s much safer to carefully ride around the snake. This brings up a good point. If I’m in an area where the snake isn’t likely to be harmful to anyone I leave it alone. I don’t kill rattlesnakes just to kill rattlesnakes but I won’t allow them to be where I live or work – the danger is just too great. And, should anyone be sympathetic to the plight of the poor snake and suggest capturing and relocating them, I can relate several more anecdotes where people were bitten attempting to do just that. As a matter of fact, something like 90% of the people bitten by rattlesnakes are bitten while handling the snake. If you don’t want to get hit, don’t touch them, whether “dead” or not. Speaking of dead snakes, the things can be downright creepy. I’ve seen beheaded snakes, even skinned ones, coil and strike for hours. I repeat: Don’t handle snakes!

A long handled hoe is probably the best tool for dispatching troublesome serpents but I never seem to have one handy when a rattlesnake makes an appearance. These affairs have settled into something of a routine for me. Startled by the snake I usually jump about 27 feet, thus handily establishing a world record only unrecognized due to the absence of an Olympic judge. Leaping straight up is ill advised, as coming back down upon the reptile is poor business (ask me how I know). Peering at the snake from my hastily assumed position I determine if it’s dangerous then draw my pistol and shoot the snake if necessary. While you might assume shooting snakes at close range is pretty easy I can assure you it’s not. If you’re lust for a snakeskin hatband overwhelms your common sense and you decide to shoot the snake in the head to preserve the skin you might find the head shot to be hard to make with ball ammunition. If the snake isn’t coiled you can usually get it to go into a coil by kicking some gravel into its face and this provides a bigger target. If you aim at the bottom coil on hard ground the bullet will usually bounce up through the coils and cause a lot of damage.

blazer_shotshellsBetter still, use pistol caliber snake shot to dispatch rattlesnakes. It’s easier to get a disabling hit and it can be fired with reasonable safety in places where you wouldn’t want to shoot defensive ammunition – like on your back porch alongside your house. Composed of a plastic capsule containing shot in place of a bullet, CCI manufactures a full line of pistol caliber shot shells from .22 Long Rifle calibers all the way up to .45 Colt. In my experience, the .22 shot loads are only effective at very close range and killing a snake usually requires several shots. The .38 Special shot loads work pretty well and the .44 Special, .45 ACP and .45 Colt shot shells are devastating when used on snakes from a safe distance – something like 5 or 6 feet away. How you load the handgun for snakes requires a bit of thought. If you routinely pack a revolver in snake country I recommend keeping one or two shot loads in the cylinder as the first round(s) to come up when you fire. An alternate method is to keep a couple of rounds of snake shot in your ammo carrier, ready to be loaded into the cylinder if needed. This method is slower but if you’re a safe distance from the snake speed isn’t required. Semi-automatic pistols can be carried with a shot round in the chamber but I prefer to carry a spare magazine with a couple of snake loads. When needed, I simply execute a tactical reload, placing the snake magazine in the pistol, then rack the slide to eject the chambered round and replace it with a shot load. Some pistols have a little trouble chambering the shot loads, something that isn’t an issue with revolvers.

Do a little practicing with the handgun and load you plan to carry for snake defense. A snaky looking stick tossed on the ground makes a good target and you may find your shot goes a little high at these very short ranges and you will have to aim a little low. You can fire the shot loads on paper to get an idea how they pattern at different distances. Shorter barrels tend to throw wider patterns and longer barrels usually shoot into a tighter pattern.

Snake3Finally, a little advice on cutting the heads off snakes: As I said before, if you don’t have to touch the snake, then don’t. Not being a fan of the often-advised method of stepping on the head of the snake and cutting it off with a pocketknife, I keep a machete in each of my vehicles and have a couple hanging in the tool shed and barn on my property. This gives me a little reach from the bitey end and I feel pretty safe using the machete to slice the head off. Note I did not suggest chopping, because sometimes this results in the head flying off, usually in my direction. Once the head is removed I dig a hole with the machete blade, scoop the head in and bury it.

Like I said, I don’t like snakes but they are a part of life in the outdoors. If you’re alert and armed with the right tools an encounter with a poisonous snake may be exciting but it need not be deadly.

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Ed Head (1949 - 2022) was a regular on Shooting Gallery, Gun Stories and Down Range TV. He worked for almost 30 years in law enforcement, first in the United States Air Force and then with the United States Border Patrol, retiring as a Field Operations Supervisor. During his Border Patrol career, Ed worked in a variety of patrol, investigative and training capacities. Ed had an extensive background as a firearms instructor, having trained thousands, ranging from beginners to police, military and special operations personnel. Having taught at Gunsite for 20 years, Ed first trained there under the world famous shooting school’s founder, Jeff Cooper, then later ran the school as the operations manager for more than five years. Ed passed away on September 16, 2022.


  1. I agree. Rattlesnakes are not my favorite field mate. I have used 22 caliber, 38 caliber and 12 guage to kill rattlesnakes and with no great surprise the 12 guage is best. I carry a short barrel 870 behind the seat in my truck and wear a 38 snub nose on my hip in rattlesnake country.

  2. After extensive testing of patterns and penetration and having killed a good number of snakes with all CCI shot shell calibers (except .22 RF) I find the .45 ACP shotshell to work better than all other calibers. I have also taken small game at 10 yards + with this load. Just passing on my observations. Excellent article.

  3. My granddad had a fellow neighbor cattle rancher who hosted a visiting preacher. Out on the property, the preacher walked in the road while the rancher walked in the grass. The preacher asked what that pinging sound was every so often. The rancher replied those where rattlesnake bites bouncing off the stovepipe he wore under the legs of his Levi’s.

  4. Why don’t you just step around the snake and go your way and let the snake go its way? If you have time to pull and aim a pistol, you have time to step around the snake.
    Yes, I am a gun owner, second amendment supporter, conservationist, environmentalist and hunter.
    Was taught if you kill it you clean it and eat it…..Ask my grandson how cowbird tastes.

    • Rod,

      As you may have read in my article, when I’m in places where snakes pose no danger to people I leave them alone. But, where I live, where I work and, most importantly, where my family and students could be endangered, the snakes have to go.


  5. I live in Southeastern AZ on a ranch that has lots of mojaves and diamondbacks. My house was empty for 5 years before I bought it and there were 2 snake dens underneath it (one under my bathtub). It is quite disconcerting to hear a rattlesnake underneath the tub when taking a bath. I used the 357/38 shot shells to kill lots of rattlers and they were very effective. However, I have not been able to find the CCI 357/38 shot shells in the past 2 years which makes living here pretty dangerous. I have checked the local gun shops and big online retailers to no avail. If anyone can tell me where to find some, I would REALLY appreciate it! Finding some could save our lives and those of my horses, dogs and cats…any help finding some would be appreciated!!! Thanks!


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